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It's Shark Week - did you know there are prehistoric shark fossils in Northeast Ohio?

Posted: 11:06 AM, Aug 02, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-02 18:23:01-04
Shark fos

CLEVELAND — It is Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, but did you know every week is shark week in Northeast Ohio?

There is amazing history beneath our feet.

Cleveland is considered the shark capital of the world when it comes to the oldest kinds of sharks — ones that lived millions of years before the dinosaurs.

There are rows of fossils at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, incluing a six-foot long shark called the Cladoselache that lived during the Devonian period — known as the Age of Fishes — nearly 360 million years ago when a shallow sea covered the area.

Cladoselache
A fossil of a six-foot-long Cladoselache was found in the Cleveland area.

The Cleveland Shale is the perfect place to preserve their bodies.

"It's very rare to find shark fossils that aren't teeth," said Lee Hall, a paleontologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "But here, in these shale rocks around Cleveland that are 360 million years old, we have the entire mummified bodies of them, including the soft tissues of the skin, the cartilaginous elements, muscle fibers, and stomach contents."

He said the primitive sharks had different skulls than modern sharks. He said they had "muppety" mouths.

Prehistoric shark
Primitive sharks have what Lee Hall describes as "muppety mouths" or "terminal mouths" that were right at the end of their noses.

"So, if you think of a great white, they have a big conical nose that sticks out in front of the face," described Hall. "Early sharks actually had what's called a terminal mouth. So, the mouth was right at the end of the nose and they didn't have the ability to move their jaws out. We also know that they tended to consume their prey whole because in their stomachs in some of the nice fossils we have, there are whole fish, not chunks of fish."

Shark fossil
Whole fish - not chunks - can be found in the fossilized stomachs of sharks found in Northeast Ohio.

Hall said there were also differences in their fins and gills, but similarities like teeth were already replacing themselves.

"As far as the fossil record of sharks goes, before we get to the fossils of sharks found here, the only fossils of sharks are essentially scattered teeth and scales — maybe part of a skull from Australia," Hall said. "Then, you get to Northeast Ohio, about 360 million years ago and boom — some of the finest preserved shark fossils in the world! It's really a point of local pride."

Hall said there are a lot of geological coincidences that happened to make Cleveland the perfect resting place for these fossils. He said drainage basins tend to be the best place to find fossils.

Fossils found in shale
Rocky River is a real hot-spot for fossil finds in Northeast Ohio.

Hall said they find a lot in Rocky River, but have digs underway all the time around the region.

You can learn much more about the Cladoselache, and other primitive fish found in our area, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.